Posts tagged ‘Soviet Union’

How Scarce Goods Are Allocated In A World Without Prices

I can think of at least two ways goods are allocated when there are no prices

  • By use of force.  In modern societies, use of force is generally limited to the government so in practice this means that goods without prices will tend to flow to those with government power or who are cronies of those in power.  A great example were the special stores in the Soviet Union for party officials, but examples great and small abound today.  Here is one small one.
  • By queuing or time spent searching.  The examples of this are all around us, though they frequently are not strictly of things without prices but of things that have been priced far below their market clearing price.  I think back to my days queuing in physical lines (long before Ticketmaster and the Internet) for concert tickets that were not free but were priced so far below market clearing prices that one had to wait in long lines to get them.  The gasoline lines of the 1970's and the time spent driving around looking for a gas station that had gas is another example.  A more recent example would be long hospital emergency room lines created by people who get care "free" at emergency rooms.

It was in this context that I read this article on finding parking in New York City.  Residential street parking in NYC is an extremely valuable resource for which there is no monetary charge.  So there is a lot more demand than supply.  So people spend scores of hours a year searching and queuing for spaces.

To some extent, this time cost is sort of like a money cost -- when the cost gets too high in relation to the value people assign to having a car, people give up their cars and bring supply and demand in balance.  But while people may vary in the amount they value having a car, one perverse aspect of any queuing system is that it will tend to allocate goods to the people with the lowest marginal value for their time.   The lower the marginal value one assigns to one's time and labor, the more hours one might be willing to queue and search.

This is a large reason why I have always thought price controls during emergencies - e.g. the "no price gouging during hurricanes" sorts of laws - are particularly destructive.  In the aftermath of a disaster like a hurricane there will be those who are mainly just sitting at home waiting things out, wondering how many days they will get off work and school; and there will be those who have a ton to do - roof repairers, tree cutters, etc.  Think about gasoline, where there is often a temporary supply shortfall after a hurricane.  Prices should rise to bring things in balance but laws do not allow this, so queuing results.  Who is most able to afford to sit in these queues - the person who is just sitting around waiting for things to reopen or the person who is totally bombarded with work and needs to be 23 places at once?  Do we really want roof repairers sitting 2 hours in line for gas behind three teenagers** who had nothing else to do so their parents sent them to top of the tank "just in case"?

** Growing up in Houston through several hurricanes, I have been this teenager and assigned exactly this task.

The Wages of Communism -- The Chinese Catastrophe Under Mao

Apparently new Communist Party archives are becoming available to scholars in China, and the true story of the Great Leap Forward appears to be even worse than we imagined.

A catastrophe of gargantuan proportions ensued. Extrapolating from published population statistics, historians have speculated that tens of millions of people died of starvation. But the true dimensions of what happened are only now coming to light thanks to the meticulous reports the party itself compiled during the famine. My study, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe (2010), relies on hundreds of hitherto unseen party archives, including: secret reports from the Public Security Bureau; detailed minutes of top party meetings; unexpunged versions of leadership speeches; surveys of working conditions in the countryside; investigations into cases of mass murder; confessions of leaders responsible for the deaths of millions of people; inquiries compiled by special teams sent in to discover the extent of the catastrophe in the last stages of the Great Leap Forward; general reports on peasant resistance during the collectivisation campaign; secret police opinion surveys; letters of complaint written by ordinary people; and much more.

What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in history, responsible for the deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten kilogram stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool – punishment for digging up a potato.

There is more like this in the article.  When I read this, I can't help thinking about Hannah Arendt and her classic "Origins of Totalitarianism."  During the 60's and 70's, this fabulous work was targeted for marginalization by the academic Left because many in academia were admirers of Stalin and the Soviet Union and deeply resented the parallels Arendt raised between European fascism and Soviet communism.   Arendt's partial rehabilitation came after 1989, when Eastern European scholars and historians coming out from under communism looked around for a framework to describe their experiences under communism, and found Hannah Arendt to be most compelling.  This new wave of scholarship on communist China likely will vindicate Arendt as well.

American university campuses, in their current orgy of admiration for socialism, will have to work extra hard to whitewash this, but I am sure they are up to the task.

Update:  Venezuela goes full Great Leap Forward.


The Fallacy of Centrism

I thought this was a fascinating article on how political reformers may be underestimating the moderation of voters

Most voters support some liberal policies and some conservative policies. Academics have long taken this as evidence of voters’ underlying centrism.

But just because voters are ideologically mixed does not mean they are centrists at heart. Many voters support a mix of extremeliberal policies (like taxing the rich at 90 percent) and extremeconservative policies (like deporting all undocumented immigrants). These voters only appear “centrist” on the whole by averaging their extreme views together into a single point on a liberal-conservative spectrum....

Donald Trump’s rise exemplifies these dangers.

Political scientists and pundits alike argue that it would improve governance to devolve political power from the political elites who know the most about politics and policy to the voters who know the least. Polarization scholars hold these uninformed voters in the highest esteem because they look the most centrist on a left-right spectrum. They are also Donald Trump’s base.

Yes, you read that right. Political scientists have long exalted the centrist wisdom of those who now constitute some of Trump’s strongest supporters — the poorly educatedauthoritarianxenophobes who are attracted to a platform suffused with white supremacy, indulge in unapologetic nationalism and use violence to silence opponents. As commentator Jacob Weisberg has written, these extreme voters’ views are a mix of “wacko left and wacko right” — the key credential one needs to qualify as centrist by scholars’ most popular definition.

A large part of the problem is the left-right political spectrum with which we are saddled.  This spectrum was pushed on us by Marxist academics of the 1950's-1970's.  It is meant to show a spectrum from really bad (with fascism at the far Right) to really good (with their goal of communism on the far Left)**.  For some reason non-Marxists have been fooled into adopting this spectrum, leaving us with the bizarre scale where our political choices are said to lie on a spectrum with totalitarianism on one end and totalitarianism on the other end -- truly an authoritarians "heads I win, tails you lose" setup.  In this framework, the middle, whatever the hell that is, seems to be the only viable spot, but Brookman is arguing above that the middle is just a mix of untenable extreme positions from the untenable ends of the scale.

The Left-Right spectrum is totally broken.   Trump is unique in the current presidential race not because he appeals to centrists, but because he simultaneously demagogues both the Conservative civilization-barbarism language and the Liberal/Progressive oppressor-oppressed narrative.  The fact that his supporters find appeal in extreme versions of both narratives does not mean they should average to centrists.  A libertarian like myself would say that they are extremists on the far authoritarian end of the liberty-coercion axis  (I, of course, am an extremist as well on the other end of this scale).


** Postscript: This is part of a long history of the Left trying to define political terms in their favor.   I love the work on totalitarianism by Hanna Arendt, but you will sometimes hear academics say that Arendt was "repudiated" (or some similar term) in the 1960's.  What actually happened was that a new wave of Leftish professors entered academia in the 1960's who admired the Soviet Union and even Stalin.  They did not like Arendt's comparison of Nazism and Stalinism as being essentially two sides of the same coin, even though this seems obvious to me.  Nazism and Stalinism were, to them, opposite sides of the political spectrum, from dark and evil to enlightened.  Thus they dumped all over Arendt, saying that her conclusions did not accurately describe the true nature of life under communism.  And so things remained, with Arendt pushed to the margins by Leftish academics, until about 1989.  As the iron curtain fell, and new intellectuals emerged in Eastern Europe, they cast about for a framework or a way to describe their experience under communism.  And the person they found who best described their experience was... Hannah Arendt.

Obamacare Not Only Raising My Rates, But Making The Process Much Harder

On September 26 of this year, President Obama said this of the new Obamacare exchanges:

“If you’ve ever tried to buy insurance on your own,” he said, “I promise you this is a lot easier.”

Well, let's see.  Here are some notes on my previous health insurance buying decision

  • I was able to price shop policies online without creating an account, without giving up my social security number.  The websites to do so worked and operated quickly
  • A broker who had decades of experience in health care (rather than being a former Obama campaign worker with a few hours of training) walked me through the options and how they worked.
  • Once we chose a policy, the application process online was quick and easy

Here is one thing that was likely worse

  • I had to provide medical history information, which probably is not required under Obamacare because of community rating (though I am not sure)

And here is one thing that was better for me but I guess must be worse for the Left since they complain about it so much

  • There was a lot more choice.  If the process was "harder" in any way before, it was because there were far more choices.  It was harder in the same way that it is generally harder to shop in the US than, say, in the old Soviet Union.  Obamacare circumscribes policies such that a large package of benefits are mandated, not optional (I have to pay for mental health coverage and probably aromatherapy) and the size of one's deductible is capped.

It is also this latter difference that will make my next policy substantially more expensive.  In standardizing options, the Congress standardized on the most expensive options (broadest possible benefits, smallest possible deductible).

By the way, this is not proven yet but there is probably one other way my Obamacare policy will be worse than my last one:  the doctor network in my policy will very likely be a LOT smaller.  We could almost be sure this would happen precisely because Obama promised it wouldn't  (his promises on health care are pretty good "tells" that the opposite will happen).

I'm Happy About the French Election

Apparently, the fall of the Soviet Union is far enough in the rear view mirror that its time for another object lesson in the real effects of communism.   It's incredible to me that any country would want to actually emulate Greece, but France seems hell-bent to do so.  So all I can say is "way to go, France!  Better you guys than us."

Apparently Obama is already cozying up with Francois Hollande.   These two may be the socialist-corporatist answer to Reagan and Thatcher.  It is interesting that Europe seems to produce an analog to the American President in each generation (or vice versa).    Reagan-Thatcher, Clinton-Blair, now Obama-Hollande.

Loyalty to the State Day

Unbelievable.  Obama has declared May 1, the traditional day used by the Soviet Union to celebrate the power of the state through military parades and such, to be "loyalty day."  Not "let's respect what America stands for" day or "celebrate liberty day" but "promise unthinking loyalty to our government masters" day.

This is particularly ironic as the other major competing proposal for Mayday is as a remembrance for the people killed by communism.  So, your choice today.  Salute the victims of out-of-control state power, or pledge your loyalty to the state.

Too Easy to Make War

Since I am on the subject today of topics my thinking has changed on over the last 30 years, I will link this post from Kevin Drum arguing that we need to make war hard again.  I have not read Rachel Maddow's book and am unlikely to, if for no other reason than style issues, but I must say that I have come around to the point Drum derives from it

If you can get past that, though, there's a deadly serious argument here that deserves way more attention than it gets. The book is, basically, a series of potted histories that explain how we drifted away from our post-Vietnam promise to make sure we never again went to war without the full backing and buy-in of the American public. Maddow's premise is that, just as the founders intended, our aim was to make war hard. Presidents would need Congress on their side. The Abrams Doctrine ensured that reserves would have to be called up. Wars would no longer unfold almost accidentally, as Vietnam did.

And for a while that was the case. ...

Maddow's argument is that we need to start rolling back these changes of the past two decades. When we go to war, we should raise taxes to pay for it. We should get rid of the secret military. The reserves should go back to being reserves. We should cut way back on the contractors and let troops peel their own potatoes. And above all, Congress should start throwing its weight around again. It's fine to criticize presidents for accreting ever more power to themselves, but what do you expect when Congress just sits back and allows it happen? Our real problem is congressional cowardice: they don't want the responsibility of declaring war, but they also don't want the responsibility of stopping it. So they punt, and war becomes ever more a purely executive function.

I am mostly in agreement with this (though I am not sure why soldiers rather than contractors should peel potatoes).  War has become way too easy -- though I would argue that Drum needs to look in a mirror a bit here.  He has been a huge supporter of Obama using executive powers to end-around Congressional opposition on things like the budget.  It's hard for him to credibly turn around and say that this same executive end-around Congress is bad in war-making.   I will be consistent and say it's bad for both.

I have not read the book, so perhaps this is covered, but I would argue that there are external factors driving this change in addition to internal factors.

The current Presidential ability to fight small wars without much Congressional backing is not entirely unprecedented.  Teddy Roosevelt did much the same thing with his gunboat diplomacy.  There were two external conditions that allowed TR to get away with this that are similar to conditions that obtain today.  One, we had a decisive economic and technological advantage over the countries we were pushing around (e.g. Columbia).  And two, there was no superpower willing to challenge us when we meddled in small countries, particularly in Latin America where the major European powers were willing to let us do whatever we wanted.

I would argue that these conditions again obtain since the fall of the Soviet Union, and allow the US to lob around cruise missiles (the gunboat diplomacy of the 21st century) with relative impunity.

Final Indicator, if You Needed One, of a Looming China Crash

Here is what I remember from the late 1980's - just about every technocratic pundit of the leftish bent, and a number on the right, all hailed Japan as the government economic planning model the US should follow.  One fawning essay after another lauded Japan's MITI and its top-down approach to economic investment.

Practically within hours of when these editorials peaked, the Japanese economy began to crumble.  We know now that MITI and other Japanese officials were creating gross distortions and misallocations in the economy, and inflating an economic bubble with gobs of cheap credit.  These distortions have still not been entirely cleared from the Japanese economy 20 years later, and the country experienced what was called "the lost decade" which may become the lost two decades.

For over a year, it has appeared to me (and many other observers more knowledgeable than I) that China was headed for a crash for many of the same reasons as Japan.  I am now sure this is true, as today Andy Stern (formerly of the SEIU) writes an essay lauding the Chinese top-down state-planned economic model.

The current debates about China's currency, the trade imbalance, our debt and China's excessive use of pirated American intellectual property are evidence that the Global Revolution—coupled with Deng Xiaoping's government-led, growth-oriented reforms—has created the planet's second-largest economy. It's on a clear trajectory to knock America off its perch by 2025....

There is no doubt that China will pass the US in total economic size -- it has three times more people than we do.  But their success is clearly due to the small dollops of free enterprise that are allowed in a statist society, and advances are made in spite of, not because of, the meddling state.

Exactly how much economic progress had China made before its leaders brought in the very free market ideas Stern says are dead?  None, of course.  To read China as a triumph of statism and as the death nell of capitalism, when in fact it is one of the greatest examples in history of the power of capitalist ideas and how fast they can turn around a starving and poverty-stricken country, is just willful blindness.

I will include just one other excerpt

While we debate, Team China rolls on. Our delegation witnessed China's people-oriented development in Chongqing, a city of 32 million in Western China, which is led by an aggressive and popular Communist Party leader—Bo Xilai. A skyline of cranes are building roughly 1.5 million square feet of usable floor space daily—including, our delegation was told, 700,000 units of public housing annually.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government can boast that it has established in Western China an economic zone for cloud computing and automotive and aerospace production resulting in 12.5% annual growth and 49% growth in annual tax revenue, with wages rising more than 10% a year.

My first thought on reading this was that Houston used to look exactly like this, with cranes all over the place building things, until we had an Administration that actively opposed expansion of domestic oil production.  My second thought is that this reads so much like the enthusiast essays written by leftists when they used to visit the Soviet Union and came back telling us Russia was so much superior to the US -- just look at the Moscow subway!

The emergence of hundreds of millions of people in China and India from poverty is exciting as hell, and at some level I don't blame Stern for his excitement.  But I fear that what he is seeing is the US housing bubble on steroids, a gross misallocation of capital and resources driven by a few technocrats who think they can manage a billion person economy from their office in Beijing.

Disclosure:  I seldom do anything but invest in generic bond funds and US stock funds, but right now I am out of US equities and I have a number of shorts on Chinese manufacturing and real estate.

Coyote's Pre-Response to Obama's Budget Speech

No, Mr. Obama, the fecklessness of politicians does not obligate me to send more of my money to the government.

Three times in my life I have lent money to people in serious financial straits.  In every case, they came back to me for more.  "X more dollars and I will be home free and can pay you back."  In a few cases I came up with a second infusion and in one case I (embarrassingly) actually gave money a third time.   In no case was I ever paid back.    I haven't heard this phrase in years, but when I was young stock investors had a saying -- "your first loss is your best loss."  This was just another way of saying don't throw good money after bad.

Obama and Bush (I haven't forgotten your culpability in all this George) sold the country, or at least Congress, on emergency spending for wars and bailouts and stimulus.  This was supposedly one-time spending only for the duration of the emergency.  But now Democrats and Obama are treating the peak of this emergency spending as the new baseline, from which cuts are impossible.

This lack of desire to cut spending and a resetting of norms as to "what is normal" is not just a government problem, it is endemic to every organization.  Private organizations face this problem all the time.  The difference is that when times go bad, private organizations do not have fiat taxation power, so that when they are underwater, they must cut bloated budgets or die.  Either way, the problem goes away.  Private companies differ from government not in that they don't have problems with beauracracy and risk aversion and deadwood and bloat and bad incentives - because they do.  The difference is that private companies cannot get away with allowing this stuff to linger forever, and governments can.

Government will never, ever, ever, ever cut spending unless all hope of new taxes is removed, and even then they will likely try to cut spending on the most, rather than the least, popular programs to build public support for more taxes.

In the early 90's, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we talked about a peace dividend from reductions in military spending.  I want a sanity dividend.

Postscript: We like to think that financial problems are due to bad luck, but they usually are due to poor management.  The guy I lost the most money with was producing a really interesting boat concept, basically as fun and lithe and fast as a jetski but enclosed so boaters who were less daring would not actually be in contact with the water.  I wanted a bunch for rental service at our marinas.  But he kept asking for money, saying that he had bad luck with this supplier or that supplier.  Eventually, I found out he was in this incredibly expensive commercial lease, and was burning all the money I lent him on useless rent payments.  Stupid.

After I graduated from college, I cashed in about $7000 in savings bonds I had accumulated.  I was going to make a fortune in the market.  After three years I had lost almost all of it -- right in the heart of one of the greatest bull markets in history!  A few years later, I was in a situation where I could have really used this money.  This was not bad luck or circumstances, I did stupid things.  I recognized something that many dentists and doctors never learn - it was possible to be a smart guy who sucked at investing.  I was one of them.  My investing has been in index funds ever since.

Unfortunately, I Have Lately Had Cause to Lament the Same Thing

Via Mises Blog:

The hidden hand behind this unsanitary calamity is the US government. The true origin of the mess was not in the hour before I arrived but back in 1994, when Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.This act, passed during an environmentalist hysteria, mandated that all toilets sold in the United States use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. This was a devastating setback in the progress of civilization. The conventional toilet in the US ranges from 3.5 gallons to 5 gallons. The new law was enforced with fines and imprisonment.

For years, there was a vibrant black market for Canadian toilet tanks and a profitable smuggling operation in effect. This seems either to have subsided or to have gone so far underground that it doesn't make the news. I've searched the web in vain for evidence of any 3.5 or 5.0 gallon toilet tanks for sale through normal channels. I wonder what one of these fetches in the black market. This possible source has no prices and an uncertain locale.

The toilet manufacturers, meanwhile, are all touting their latest patented innovations as a reason for the reduced hysteria surrounding the toilet disaster. I suspect something different. We have all gotten used to a reduced standard of living "” just as the people living in the Soviet Union became accustomed to cold apartments, long bread lines, and poor dental care. There is nothing about our standard of living that is intrinsic to our sense of how things ought to be. Let enough time pass and people forget things. So let us remember way back when:

  • Toilets did not need plungers next to them, and thank goodness. Used plungers are nasty, disease carrying, and filthy. It doesn't matter how cute the manufacturer tries to make them or in how many colors you can buy them. In the old days, you would never have one exposed for guests. It was kept out in the garage for the rare occasion when someone threw a ham or something stranger down the toilet.
  • Toilet paper was super thick and getting thicker. None of this one-ply nonsense.
  • You never had any doubt about the capacity of the toilet to flush completely, with only one pull of the handle. The toilet stayed clean thanks to five gallons of rushing water pouring through it after each flush.

It concludes:

"Capitalism achieved something spectacular in waste disposal. Government came along and took it away from us."

What's Next -- Dreaming of Mussolini?

Violet at Reclusive Leftist writes in an article entitled, "Dreaming of Diocletian":

When the Roman Empire was broken, Diocletian fixed it. He completely revamped the imperial government, discarding centuries of tradition in favor of a new organizational structure designed to meet the challenges of the day. You can do stuff like that when you're an emperor. It was sort of a one-man Constitutional Convention.

I think of Diocletian whenever I contemplate the political mess in this country.

Let's make sure we understand what Diocletian did.  What she calls "fixing the Roman Empire" was in fact the imposition of a new level of autocracy.  The best modern equivalent would be if Putin were reunify the old Soviet Union through military force and repression.  Would we celebrate this? No?  Then why do we celebrate when it happened 18 centuries ago?

Certainly since Augustus, the Empire had been ruled autocratically, but there were checks on the Emperor's power, not the least of which was the fact that the Empire simply didn't have the bureaucracy or communications for real command and control governance.  Further, the Emperors had at least maintained a facade, and sometimes a reality, of being a servant of the people - calling themselves Princeps , or something like the "first man."

Diocletian changed all of that.  He demanded people call him Dominus and Deus, meaning Lord and God.  But Lord is a poor translation of Dominus - literally dominus meant master to a slave.  The Empire became a nation of slaves with one master, Diocletian.  Any who approached Diocletian for audience had to approach on hands and knees with face averted.  If Diocletian ruled in ones favor, he was allowed to crawl on hands and knees and kiss the hem of the Emporer's tunic.

Diocletian was faced with an enormous economic problem - the debasement of a currency by generations of emperors who spent more than they had (sounds familiar).  Instead of forcing the hard changes to re-establish a sound currency, Diocletian dealt with the rampant inflation from the debased currency by setting maximum prices for every good and service in the Empire, with violations punishable by death.

When the inevitable shortages occurred (as happen whenever the government enforces a price ceiling), Diocletian dealt with the shortages by forcing key businessmen (bakers, sausage makers, etc.) to remain in business (can you say directive 10-289?)  Further, he mandated that all children of these men must remain in the same profession perpetually.  If your father was a baker, by law you were to be one as well.  He also did this for a number of underpaid government jobs that no one wanted - making them hereditary so people of the future would be forced to fill them.

Diocletian also had a tax problem.  Much of his taxes came from property taxes on farm land.  The tax was attached as a fixed amount to certain pieces of land.  When those values got too high, the occupants abandoned the land and moved to the city, and no one was there to pay the tax.  Diocletian took a census and forced peasants to return to the land of their birthplace, and forced them to remain in perpetuity on certain plots of land and then pay the taxes on that land to the government  (eventually these taxes morphed into rents to the local government noble in charge).

If you see the origins of much of the worst of the middle ages in all of this -- serfs tied to the land, paying rents to the master, with hereditary professional guilds in the towns -- you are not far off.

When I dream of Diocletian, all I get is a nightmare.

PS- Which is really what the quoted author wants, some sort of fascism by females.

Not Surprising in the Least

Via Tyler Cowen:

The Asian
Development Bank presented official survey results indicating China's
economy is smaller and poorer than established estimates say. The
announcement cited the first authoritative measure of China's size
using purchasing power parity methods. The results tell us that when
the World Bank announces its expected PPP data revisions later this
year, China's economy will turn out to be 40 per cent smaller than
previously stated......The number of people in China living below the
World Bank's dollar-a-day poverty line is 300m - three times larger
than currently estimated.

Well, this is a bit sad, as I would hope everyone likes seeing people emerge from poverty**.  But it is really not surprising.  Strongly state-run economies are notoriously hard to measure from the outside, and westerners systematically overestimated the size of the economy of the old Soviet Union.

**  I make this statement because I am an optimistic guy full of confidence in the generally good intentions of mankind.  Because if I were not such a person, and actually judged people by their actions, I would come to the conclusion that a lot of people DO NOT want people in countries like China to emerge form poverty.  Trade protectionism, apologias for looting dictators like Castro or Chavez, anti-globalization riots, anti-growth initiatives, and calls for rollbacks in fossil fuel consumption all share in common a shocking disregard for people trying to emerge from poverty -- often from folks on the left who purport to be the great defenders of the poor.  I tried to explain the phenomenon before, at least among self-styled "progressives':

Progressives do not like American factories appearing in third world
countries, paying locals wages progressives feel are too low, and
disrupting agrarian economies with which progressives were more
comfortable.  But these changes are all the sum of actions by
individuals, so it is illustrative to think about what is going on in
these countries at the individual level. 

One morning, a rice farmer in southeast Asia might faces a choice.
He can continue a life of brutal, back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk
for what is essentially subsistence earnings.  He can continue to see a
large number of his children die young from malnutrition and disease.
He can continue a lifestyle so static, so devoid of opportunity for
advancement, that it is nearly identical to the life led by his
ancestors in the same spot a thousand years ago.

Or, he can go to the local Nike factory, work long hours (but
certainly no longer than he worked in the field) for low pay (but
certainly more than he was making subsistence farming) and take a shot
at changing his life.  And you know what, many men (and women) in his
position choose the Nike factory.  And progressives hate this.  They
distrust this choice.  They distrust the change.  And, at its heart,
that is what the opposition to globalization is all about - a deep
seated conservatism that distrusts the decision-making of individuals
and fears change, change that ironically might finally pull people out
of untold generations of utter poverty.


GWB seems to have riled lots of folks up over his reference in a recent speech to Yalta.  If you have read any of the comentary from the left, you might be imagining he said all kinds of wild things.  I read much of the commentary before I ever read Bush's words, so I was prepared for a real gaffe.  After reading his speech, I was left wondering if those attacking Bush heard the same speech.  Here is the key paragraph:

As we mark a victory of six days ago -- six decades ago, we are
mindful of a paradox. For much of Germany, defeat led to freedom. For
much of Eastern and Central Europe, victory brought the iron rule of
another empire. V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end
oppression. The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of
Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful
governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow
expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of
stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of
millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the
greatest wrongs of history.

I am not sure how you can disagree with this.  I think the US owes Eastern Europe a big appology for selling them out at Yalta.  Now, one can argue that we had some reasons for our actions at Yalta.  First and foremost, we were exhausted from the worst war in history, and no one had the energy to gear up for a new confrontation.  Also, one can argue that it may be 20/20 hindisght that causes us to be more aware of Soviet hegemonic intentions than the actors at the time might have been (though certainly Churchill was fully cognizant of the dangers).  But, no matter how you cut it, small countries like Latvia were wiped out of existance and handed over to the Soviet Union by the Yalta agreement, and Bush's audience was made up of people still stung by this.  I think the comparison to Munich is very apt - the US post-WWII was exhausted and was more than ready to suspend disbelief and hope that appeasing Soviet territorial ambitions would head off a fresh confrontation no one had the will to fight.  Reason's hit and run has a nice roundup and further analysis.

The only explanation I can come upfor the uproar is that FDR, like Reagan and Kennedy, has an incredibly powerful though informal legacy protection society that leaps into action at even the smallest attempt to besmirch his historical halo.  In this case, Bush rightly does not even mention FDR; however, since FDR was the main advocate for pandering to Stalin at Yalta (against Churchill's vociforous but ultimately ignored objections), his defense forces feel the need to jump into action.  I would have hoped that with 3 generations separating us from FDR, we could finally look at him objectively.  He fought a fabulous war, in some sense carrying the whole free world on his shoulders for four years.  But he fumbled the peace, though, and screwed up at Yalta.

UPDATE:  Professor Bainbridge has this nice quote from Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga a few days before Bush's speech:

In Latvia ... the
totalitarian occupation ... of Nazi Germany was immediately replaced by
another "“ that of Stalinist totalitarian communist Soviet Union and was
one that lasted a very long time. The day we shall be commemorating
does have double significance and by coming to the Baltic States
President Bush is, I believe, underscoring this double meaning of these
historic events. 60 years ago when the war ended it meant liberation
for many, it meant victory for many who could truly rejoiced in it.

But for others it meant slavery, it meant occupation, it meant
subjugation, and it meant Stalinist terror. For Latvia the true day of
liberation came only with the collapse of the Soviet Union as it did
for our neighbours Lithuania and Estonia.

Sounds a lot like what Bush said.  Seems like Bush is in pretty good touch with the sentiments of the Latvian people he is speaking to.


More Kyoto Foibles

Silflay Hraka has a nice post on Kyoto and Global warming.  I expressed many of the same thoughts here and here, though Hraka is much more concise and eloquent about it.  However, I missed this bit on Russia:

Europe as a whole may be able to meet its goals thanks to huge potential market in emissions trading brought about by the unprecedented collapse of heavy industry in the former nations of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union--graphically portrayed in this pdf from the Guardian--but actual levels of European CO2 output will not fall at all.

That's one reason it was so important for the EU for Russia to ratify Kyoto. Ratification of Kyoto allows that nation to enter into the emissions market, where the EU desperately needs it.

This makes a lot of sense.  I explained here how the Kyoto protocols, and particularly the 1990 date, were carefully structured to slam the US and make meeting targets relatively easy for Europe.  In short, 1990 was the beginning of a massive economic expansion for the US and a decade-long slump for Japan and Europe.  In addition, 1990 marked the date of German reunification and the fall of the Soviet Union -- since this time, thousands of horribly inefficient pollution-producing Soviet industries have shut down, giving Europe a huge reduction credit with no work.  Switch-over from coal to North Seas oil and gas has done the same for Britain.

Wanted: Foreign Policy Alternative

Forward:  The following post contains criticism of the administration's foreign policy, including the war in Iraq.  However, I am not one who wishes to see Iraq fail, just to make me feel better about my criticisms.  In this critical week for Iraq, I wish the people of that country all the best with their fledgling democracy and I am thrilled that their elections seem to be going well.  Writing from here in the US where millions of people don't bother to vote if it's raining, the people of Iraq who are risking their lives to vote have my deep respect.


From time to time, like many libertarians, I tend to isolationism -- but as tempting as isolationism may be, that approach is just not supported by history.  As the richest, strongest nation in the world, we run and hide from the rest of the world. In fact, I think the world is well and truly screwed if the US does not actively involve itself in making the world a better place. Since the cold war ended, the US has the luxury of intervening in world affairs and conflicts solely based on its values, such as promotion of democracy or end to genocide, rather than merely to check Soviet power. No longer do we need to support jerks like the Shah of Iran because we feel we must have allies in a particular area. GWB has outlined a fairly clear foreign policy for using American power to unseat dictators using whatever force is necessary. It is fair for us to oppose this policy for being too impatient, too violent, too expensive, too dependent on the military -- but shame on us for ceding the moral high ground of promoting democracy and opposing totalitarianism, as Democrats and many libertarians have. You can't oppose spreading democracy (or set a low priority to it, as Kerry explicitly said he would) and win with the American people. Heck, this is the Democrats' issue "“ how can they give it up to Republicans? When did pragmatic amorality rather than idealism become the hallmark of Democratic foreign policy? Where is the party of Kennedy and Truman and Roosevelt? Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for not clearly outlining a foreign policy alternative to GWB's for using the US's strength to do good in the world.

Continue reading ‘Wanted: Foreign Policy Alternative’ »

Leaving America

I got a good laugh today at all the folks, mostly on the left, who were saying that they will leave the country now that Bush is re-elected.

I was a reluctant Bush supporter. As a Libertarian, voting for major-party candidates is seldom a satisfying experience. I am well aware of the baggage Bush carries - he is not a small government libertarian. He is, however, also not a trial lawyer, not promising to balance the budget on my back, and not assuming that terrorists are wronged freedom fighters we should negotiate with.

Anyway, for all the flaws of either candidate, a Bush or Kerry America is still the best place on earth. Period. Those of you who want to leave will quickly find that, for one, America has some of the freest immigration policies in the world - just try to get a green card or a work permit for Canada or France. Good luck finding a job in Germany or France, as the semi-socialist policies that you likely admire there keep unemployment rates in the double digits. And by the way, don't expect any welfare benefits if you perhaps are imagining a slacker paradise, for though we in the US may be generous and argue how many benefits to give immigrants, you aren't getting anything as a new immigrant over there. Oh, and if you find a job, have fun with that first tax bill. And for those who want to go the extra mile and be human shields in the Gaza strip or Fallujah, you will certainly have an interesting time as you discover that that "religious fundamentalist" Bush looks like Madeline Murray O'Hare compared to your new islamo-fascist buddies.


I know the above seems exaggerated. It is not. Go read the comments section at Kos or Wonkette or Atrios. However, for just one example, try No Right Turn which has this:

There's not a fuck of a lot separating Osama bin Laden's Islamo-fascists and Dubya's Christian fundamentalists - they even follow the same god. The only real difference lies in who they want to kill. There's nothing there worth believing in, and nothing to hope for, except maybe that they'll all kill each other so that we members of the reality-based community can get on with our lives in peace

Hard to know where to start. OK, for fun, lets compare Bush to the Islamo-fascists on the three areas that most tick off Bush's detractors. Remember that I am a libertarian, so "Bush detractors" on many of these issues includes me:

Gay Rights: In the US, gays can live many places openly with some but decreasing harassment. Bush does not want them to marry. In some Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, pre-invasion Afghanistan, and Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death. Lets see, can't get married vs. death penalty. Equivalent?

Women's Rights: For some reason, this is defined in our country as being able to have an abortion. I would have thought free speech, ability to vote, right to bear arms, etc. would be women's rights too, but that is not what people seem to be talking about when they say it. So, on abortion. Abortion today in the US is legal, safe, and readily available. Bush has attempted to put some restrictions on it, such as parental consent for teenagers and elimination of certain types of procedures, but has never publicly advocated making it entirely illegal. In most of the Arab world, abortion is illegal. And, if the pregnancy is the result of sex out of wedlock, the woman risks being stoned to death. In addition, women have virtually none of those "other" women's rights we have in the US, like being able to vote, drive, show some skin, have a job outside the home, speak freely, etc. A black man in apartheid South Africa had far more rights and freedoms than a woman in the Arab world. Lets see - restrictions on certain abortion procedures vs. the status of a slave and the likelihood of getting beaten or stoned to death. Equivalent?

"Obscene" or profane speech
In the US, people have an incredible amount of freedom to say about any jackass thing they want to say. People such as Michael Moore who skewer our leaders or like Larry Flint who produce pornography are not only tolerated, but feted and made wealthy. The one exception is that the Bush administration has been more aggressive in enforcing decency standards against broadcast TV and radio, in part because of the anachronistic way these were originally licensed. This has resulted in fines related to Janet Jacksons breast and Howard Stern' language. In the Islamo-fascist world, no dissent is tolerated, nor is pornography, bad language, or anything else unacceptable to the priests. In the US, priests can complain about your low standards, but can't generally make you shut up. In Iran, for example, the priests can have you killed for your speech or form of expression, and they do. Routinely. The Janet Jacksons and Howard Sterns of Iran are probably dead. Let's see - some restrictions on TV and radio stations using the 7 banned words and showing nudity or death. Equivalent?

I am sick of these moral equivalencies. As it turns out, I actually disagree with the Bush position on many of the issues above, but I think it is absurd to say that Bush is as bad as the Islamo-fascists. The tone of the piece is to somehow pitch this as a religious war, that it is just about Christians trying to kill Muslims. But go back to September 10, 2001. Not many people in this country spared many thoughts to the Muslim world. It was only after about 3000 non-denominational deaths that people got worked up. By the way, WTC attack 1 occurred long before anyone in the Arab world ever heard of W, and the September 11 attack was planned long before he was in office. I swear that people increasingly are trying to reverse the causality here - it won't be long before I read somewhere that the 9/11 attacks were in revenge for W's invasion of Iraq.

By the way, I can't resist one last quote from this same post:

A recent New Statesman editorial commented that having watched one great beacon of hope - the Soviet Union - collapse into a nightmare, the world could hardly bear it if the other one - the United States - fell as well.

Stalin? Soviet Union? Beacons of hope. Unbelievable. The far left increasingly calls itself the "reality-based" community. Does any of this match your reality? For more, see here. Hat tip to Kiwi Blog for the link


In my original post, I jokingly said that I was taking up a collection to help people by buying them airplane tickets out of the country if they so choose. Though it was a joke, I still took it off. It sounds too much like the old conservative "America, love it or leave it" junk. America is a better place for having the broadest possible range of opinion, and I would be sad to see this end.


This post turns out to be a warm-up for this more complete post on trying to keep some sense of perspective post-election

Before We Argue - Lets See If We Are Living In The Same Universe

Back some years (decades, eek!) ago when I was in college, I used to really burn hot in political arguments. I could not let any statement go from anyone without an argument. And, being a libertarian, I could always find something to disagree with someone about. Since then I have mellowed a lot, and can let a lot of things pass.

Today, its hard to resist arguing about the war in Iraq, but I often find myself in the odd position of opposing the war in Iraq but disagreeing with most of the premises and assumptions of other people I meet who are opposed to the war. Though I oppose the war, I find myself sharing assumptions about the world that are more prevalent among proponents of the war. This might have made me uncomfortable at one point of my life, but as a small-government individual-rights libertarian you get used to this kind of thing, after seeing everyone argue if the government should be in the boardroom (Democrats and increasingly Republicans) or the bedroom (Republicans and some Democrats) or both (Pat Buchanan).

Over time, I have devised a couple of tests to get at these conflicting assumptions. These tests have evolved over time but they seem to retain their power to sort out people who are operating in an alternate reality.

Here are the two tests, in their current form (though longer for this print edition). In each case, choose either A or B, based on which seems more correct to you. Elements of both A and B will have been true from time to time and in isolated incidents. Try to choose which represents the fundamental truth to you.

Continue reading ‘Before We Argue - Lets See If We Are Living In The Same Universe’ »